Malta and its Many Marvels

‘We are incredibly varied in spite of our size,” our taxi driver boasted during our 45-minute drive from Malta’s international airport to Cirkewwa on the northern coast. My husband and I had just arrived on the main island (also called Malta) and were trying to reconcile his words with what we knew about the place and what we were seeing outside our car window.

Entrance to the city of Mdina in Malta

Entrance to the city of Mdina

What we knew was very little, like the country itself. Malta lies about 60 miles south of Sicily and consists of two main islands, the eponymous one where we had landed (about 95 square miles in size) and the adjacent island of Gozo (roughly 26 square miles). Tiny Comino (1.1 square miles) lies between them. There are also two uninhabited islets, Cominotto and Filfla.

Malta is not the smallest country in Europe but it is the most densely populated — 3,000 inhabitants per square mile compared to 85 per square mile in the United States. Total population is around 420,000 and all but 30,000 of them live on the main island. This density was evident as we drove north. Towns and villages follow one upon another in a profusion of low-slung sand-colored limestone structures that look more like Arab villages than English colonies. The names too are Arabic – Haz-Zebbug, Ta’ Qali, Naxxar, Burmarrad, Bigibba.

An example of Malta architecture

An example of Malta architecture

And the road signs! “Are these written in Maltese?,” we asked our driver. “No, all are written in English,” he replied. The words are spelled in English but they are based on Maltese, a Semitic language that sounds like Arabic gargled by an Italian. We are Italian speakers but that got us zero in terms of comprehension. This was a heads-up that Malta is more exotic than its appearance and its proximity to mainland Europe might suggest.

A taste of the unpronounceable Maltese language on a sign in Malta

A taste of the unpronounceable Maltese language

English is the second official language of the country, but Maltese is first. The cultures that have created Maltese are evident everywhere you look. A Neolithic culture existed here between 5,000 and 2,500 BC. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Turks, Normans, Sicilians, French, and British all occupied the islands, not to mention the Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem, aka the Knights of Malta, who ruled from 1530 to 1798 and still have an embassy in Valletta.

The architecture, economy, food, and customs all reflect this mélange, especially in the interior of the country. Wedged between Ottoman-styled towns and villages, we passed neatly terraced fields of figs, olives, grapes, wheat and other small farm crops typical of this Mediterranean climate with its low precipitation and more than 300 days of sunshine a year. All that sunshine makes for happy bees, and it is from honey that the island (and country) gets its name: “Malta” is a derivation of melit, a pre-Greek word for honey.

Home of the Carmelite order of nuns in Mdina, Malta

Home of the Carmelite order of nuns in Mdina

Malta’s coastline stretches 157 miles and includes cliffs, rocky and sandy beaches, coves, inlets, sparkling bays and natural ports. No wonder it was contested as a key military post for centuries. Today, the tourist towns don’t worry about pirates or invading armies. They invite as many mass market summer tourists as can be shoehorned into nondescript boxy hotels and apartments. The scenery may be spectacular but the impact is undercut by the hoards. This tiny country hosts up to five times its native population in high season – an estimated 1.5 million visitors for 2016.

The town of Qawra in Malta's off season

Qawra in the off season

Not only is Malta overcrowded in the summer; it is hot (over 100 °F) and humid. Which explains why my husband and I were visiting in February, during the “rainy” season. There is not enough rain to warrant an umbrella, fortunately. Temperatures are mostly mild, though the wind may justify jackets and scarves. No swimming or snorkeling, but sailing, tennis, horseback riding, biking, hiking, and golf are viable options. So is sightseeing.

Sightseeing in Malta

Malta has three UNESCO World Heritage sites, 365 churches, and a claim of “more monuments per square mile than any other nation.” If you are traveling independently, you can view these riches four ways: rent a car, hire a car, take the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus, or use the regular bus system. Renting a car means braving the high-density traffic (especially on Malta) and driving on the left, a legacy of the English. Hiring a car and driver/guide can be expensive. Two companies offer hop-on-hop off bus tours – Malta Sightseeing and City Sightseeing. For around € 20, you can go anywhere on that company’s line for a day.

Qawra, Malta in the off-season

Communing with nature is possible in Qawra in the off-season

We opted to use the regular bus system. It is clearly-marked, compact, clean, and inexpensive (€ 1.50 for two hours’ worth of transportation). Learn the name of your stop as well as the town, ahead of time. If you don’t, ask, and be grateful for the Maltese mastery of English. On two occasions when our bus driver either did not understand or refused to help us, other passengers came to our assistance.

Sightseeing beyond the capital of Valletta might begin with a visit to Mdina, a 4,000-year-old city roughly in the middle of the island. Its Roman artifacts, medieval flavor, and Baroque architecture create a pleasing Arabesque atmosphere, and locals claim it as one of Europe’s best examples of an ancient walled settlement.

A Mdina arch, in Malta echoing that of the Azure Window

A Mdina arch, echoing that of the Azure Window

Mdina, with its Roman villa (Domus Romana) and 17th century cathedral honoring St. Paul, flows into Rabat, where you can visit St. Paul’s Church and Grotto. The saint allegedly lived here during his three-month stay on Malta in 60 AD. In World War II the same space served as a bomb shelter for residents of the heavily-bombarded island. Your entry ticket also gives you access to the above-ground Wignacourt Museum displaying religious art and artifacts.

Inside St. Paul’s Grotto in Malta

Inside St. Paul’s Grotto

St. Paul’s and St, Agatha’s Catacombs are nearby. The former have nothing to do with St. Paul directly; both were meeting and burial sites for early Christians in the third century AD.

Two miles northeast of Mdina is the town of Mosta. Its claim to fame is the Rotunda de Mosta, the third largest unsupported dome in the world and the third largest in Europe. The dome’s internal diameter is 122 feet. It is impressive for its beauty as well as size, and for the “miracle at Mosta.” In 1942 a German bomb dropped through the dome during a mass with 300 parishioners. Inexplicably the bomb did not explode. A replica of this bomb is on display in the church sacristy. If you plan to visit, check the church’s opening hours ahead of time.

The Rotunda de Mosta in Malta

The Rotunda de Mosta is 122 feet in diameter, the third largest unsupported dome in the world

Less than 2.5 miles southwest of Mdina, the Dingli Cliffs overlook the sea. This is the starting point for a beautiful seven-mile walk that leads to the town of Qrendi and its two Neolithic temples of Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim. Like the other Neolithic sites on Malta and Gozo, these temples evoke more speculation than certainty about the enigmatic culture that produced them. They are among the oldest prehistoric temple ruins in the world. An onsite museum helps put the structures – with their sophisticated knowledge of astronomy — in context.

Heading inland north from Qrendi, a luncheon stop at Attard is worthwhile for garden lovers. Attard takes its name from the Arab word ‘Atr’ , or perfume, and flowers grow in profusion at the San Anton Palace and Gardens. The Knights of Malta developed theses gardens in the early 17th century and some sections are open to the public. Others are private, as San Anton Palace is the official residence of the president of Malta. Security and cleanliness are collateral benefits for visitors.

St. Paul’s Bay is a V-shaped natural harbor in the northeast of Malta about 10 miles north of Valletta. The towns bordering the sea, including Qawra and Buġibba, are popular with low-budget Brits and triple in population during July and August. But low season pleasures include relaxed seaside strolls, the National Aquarium, and boat trips to the Blue Lagoon on Comino. Check ahead of time for departure schedules in off-season.

Entrance to the National Aquarium on St. Paul’s Bay in Malta

Entrance to the National Aquarium on St. Paul’s Bay

Sliema and St. Julian’s, close to Valletta, are similar to the towns of St. Paul’s Bay in that they cater to summer tourists with nightlife, cafés, bars, discos, and spectacular scenery (not that anyone notices after a few drinks). Their clientele is still young in other seasons but not AS young or unruly.

Young or old, active or sedentary, amateur historian or ardent hiker, you will delight in Malta’s honeyed charms.

Written by and photos by Claudia Flisi for

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